(Painting of The Nativity by Fra Angelico.)
I come from a family of artists – painters, photographers, potters. Real artists who make a living from it, who talk about scale, perspective, balance, and the semantic potential of their work as they are eating their cornflakes in the morning. My cousin often calls me from Ireland while she is priming her Belgian linen canvas to ask if I would like to weigh in on the current debate as to whether or not black or white are actually colours. Well, I thought they were, but I’m not really an artist, so I could be wrong. And I don’t want to display my ignorance as my most recent experience of art is cutting Christmas shapes in potatoes, then dipping them in red and green paint in order to print on large sheets of paper – hardly David Hockney. So I tell my cousin I don’t have time for such abstract concepts in the morning as I have more important things to worry about such as whether or not I have any clean underwear left.
My cousin sighs before saying goodbye. I know the sound of that sigh well. It speaks volumes. It’s the I-almost-forgot-for-a-moment-who-I-was-talking-to-because-sometimes-you-sound-quite-intelligent-when-it-comes-to-art-sigh.
You see, I’m not an artist. I can’t draw. I can’t paint. I can’t sculpt. I can’t decorate ceramic bowls with little primroses that look like they’ve just sprung from the woodland. It’s a coordination thing. Most newborn babies can draw better stick figures than me.
I’m making out that my family are snobbish about art, they’re not really, just enthusiastic. I actually don’t mind how many slings and barbs my artistic family members throw at me because I have one thing they don’t – a definitive, unequivocal artistic moment in the sun.
My Great Grandmother, Minnie McGonagle, from Donegal in Ireland, was a true artisan – she made stained glass windows. She had massive sketchbooks full of drawings of saints and angels which she added to when she had time in between raising six children and helping her husband run a bakery.
Those saints and angels had a big influence on me and my cousin, Patrick. Raised as strict Catholics, as adults our piety wavered, but the love of religious iconography started by Great Gran Min stayed with us. Thematically, it defined Patrick’s work. His landscapes were full of angels hiding behind trees, or watching over the world from rooftops.
When I was about eight years old, Great Gran Min was commissioned by the local church to make a glass screen depicting the Nativity. The screen was to be movable so it could be folded away after Christmas. It had four panels consisting of wrought iron frames holding the glass that was about five feet high. Each panel depicted a different scene from the Nativity.
There was the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, telling her she was with child; Joseph and Mary travelling, looking for an inn; angels appearing to the shepherds, announcing the blessed birth; and finally, Mary holding the baby Jesus, the look of joy on her face indescribable.
When the screen was unveiled I was transfixed, harpooned to my seat, mouth full of ambrosia (or the most delicious chocolate.) At that moment I understood what Christmas was all about. It wasn’t about presents or letters to Santa or how much Christmas pudding you could eat. It was about one word – Glory!
Great Gran Min’s nativity screen created a buzz in the local community. People came from miles around to see it. The role of minor celebrity made her impatient, however, for what she wanted to do was more work with glass.
Two weeks before Christmas vandals broke into the church and smashed the final panel in the screen, the one where Mary holds the baby Jesus. The glass lay all over the steps leading to the altar in a plume like it had fallen from a dripping tap. “All that work!” Great Gran Min cried. The final screen was filled with chipboard and covered with announcements concerning Christmas services and charity drives, nondescript and out of place. Great Gran Min was desolate.
I knew what I had to do. I borrowed Patrick’s fancy Faber Castell pencils, the tips so soft it was like drawing with velvet, and tried to reproduce the scene from the final panel. It was difficult, I have never been an artist, but I came up with a passable image of Mary holding the baby Jesus. The only difference in interpretation was a single tear lodged on Mary’s cheek, tinged with the softest blue. I called the drawing ‘One Tear Of Joy.’ I wrapped it in tissue paper and placed it on Great Gran Min’s bedside table.
In the morning she came into my room early. I was sure she was going to reprimand me but she held me so tightly I felt my ribs groan. ‘You, the little girl who cannot draw, made this for me,’ she said. ‘Never have I seen anything more beautiful.’ I was taken aback, even I could see it wasn’t that good, but great Gran Min loved it.
She had my drawing framed and hung it over the place where the final screen had been. When Christmas was over she mounted it on the wall of her bedroom where it stayed for years. When she fell ill just before her death, she took it with her to the hospital. When she died a plaque was erected in her honour in the Church. She requested in her will that my drawing be hung next to it. It remains there to this day.
I haven’t seen the drawing for over ten years. I don’t even have a photo of it. I am actually embarrassed by its simplicity and by the fact that Great Gran Min could see something of merit in something so raw and unpolished.
Yet to this day I remain the only member of the family to have an exhibit on display that has lasted almost as long as my lifetime. None of the other legitimate artists in the family can make such a claim. It is a good feeling.